The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) – the Black Lions – is the only organization of its kind in the world. Its primary mission is to provide advice and technical assistance in all aspects of electrical power and distribution systems and to generate and distribute low- to medium-voltage electrical power in support of Army operations and disaster relief around the globe.
“We are the only prime power capability the government has, deployed worldwide to provide power and electrical systems to support Army operations,” said Lt. Col. Calvin C. Hudson II, battalion commander. “Prime power derives from the ability to operate centralized power plants and provide oversight of facilities for electric installation. What we call ‘prime’ is low- to medium-voltage electricity. Low voltage is like the power breakers in your home, anywhere up to 400 volts; from 600 to 69,000 volts is medium; anything above 69,000 volts is high voltage.
“Prior to our standup, prime power expertise was provided by small detachments spread across the globe. We recognized the need to create an organization to coordinate prime power support and develop leadership. So we stood up the 249th in 1994, consolidating those detachments as four companies, two at Fort Belvoir, Va. – HQ Company and Charlie Company – and one each at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. We also have an Army Reserve component in Rhode Island, which does our overhead work [overhead lines, bucket trucks] wherever the 249th is deployed.”
The battalion’s services include electrical power requirement assessment and production; transformer inspection and test analysis; maintenance and repair of power plants, substations, and government-owned or -managed transmission and distribution systems, circuit breaker and relay maintenance; infrared surveys; medium-voltage electrical contractor oversight; and training personnel to operate and maintain prime power distribution and generation equipment.
“We would first seek to push our equipment into the area and, if combat, would have dedicated equipment there. If disaster, we have a worldwide contract office that can get equipment wherever it is needed. So in either case, we probably wouldn’t work directly with the host nation,” Hudson explained.
“Normally there is minimum involvement with a host nation when it comes to electrical, unless we need to tie into their local grid. We did in Iraq, for example, so they could sustain themselves and take care of their power plants,” Hudson said.
Under the current structure, Alpha Company Headquarters and four prime power platoons are based in Hawaii, providing support to USACE requirements in the Pacific, although that may be supplemented as needed by other companies. Bravo Company and four prime power platoons are based out of Fort Bragg, N.C., and Charlie Company and four prime power platoons are co-located with Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) in Fort Belvoir, Va. Delta Company, the Reserve component of the 249th, is headquartered out of Cranston, R.I.
The prime power military occupational specialty is so technical and so rare that the 249th must operate its own school. The U.S. Army Prime Power School, managed by 249th personnel, trains all prime power Soldiers who enter the battalion. It recently relocated from Fort Belvoir to a new campus at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where it provides students with a yearlong course of instruction, both theory and hands-on, that includes math, physics, engineering, and power plant operations and maintenance.
“Most students enter as E-4s [specialists, and less often corporals] and leave as E-5s [sergeants], with an AA [associate degree] in electrical engineering,” Hudson explained. “It’s a full-time faculty, plus some outside college professors who teach some courses. They normally teach three classes, 30 students each, per year; in reality, the school typically produces about 70 to 75 Army graduates a year, all going to the 249th. We also have students from the Navy – all prime power production specialists – and a few from the Air Force. There have been no foreign students to date, but that may change soon.”
Delta Company, the all-Reserve unit, has its headquarters and three platoons in Cranston, and a fourth platoon at Fort Belvoir.
“We only had Alpha, Bravo, and HHC to begin with; we stood up Charlie [Company] in 2008 at Fort Belvoir because requirements to deploy in theater and to disasters had us spread very thin, including more rapid than optimum reset time,” Hudson said.
The 249th has a small command contingent of officers, with the bulk of its members being noncommissioned officers, primarily because the Prime Power School is restricted to E-4s and E-5s.
Since its final reinstatement in USACE, the 249th has provided prime power in the majority of the nation’s major military operations, including response to the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Enduring Freedom (OEF), Noble Eagle, Provide Comfort, Uphold Democracy, Support Hope, Joint Endeavor, Joint Guard, and a wide range of disaster relief missions, domestic and international. In those, it has earned three Superior Unit Awards, four Itschner Awards, and three Sturgis Awards.
“We have been continuously deployed to war since 2001, starting with Afghanistan, and been in both theaters throughout. We normally have two platoons deployed to Afghanistan because we are spread throughout the nation, which also was the case in Iraq,” Hudson said. “We’ve also been pretty busy with disasters. In post-OEF/OIF, we probably will more frequently be called to respond to disasters.
“We have 420 Soldiers, about 290 to 300 prime power production specialists who go out on missions. In terms of command and control, we normally report to the commander on the ground, detached from the battalion for ops control, although we still have administrative control. If the mission changes, the commander on the ground will call us to request a change in our mission, which may require additional equipment or personnel.”
The three active-duty companies typically rotate through three primary yearlong postures. One will be assigned to support deployed forces in overseas contingency operations. A second will stand ready to respond to disasters as part of the National Response Framework (under which USACE is assigned as the primary agency for Emergency Support Function #3, public works and engineering). The third will focus on training, from weapons qualification to mandatory Army continuing education classes, in a “prepare to deploy on order” posture.
When called on to deploy, the 249th’s missions begin and end with area commanders or FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), acting through USACE.
“Requests come from the COCOMs [combatant commands], through USACE, which tasks us. Or if it comes from FEMA, it also goes to USACE. So all our missions come from the Corps,” Hudson said, adding that the determination of when their job is finished is fairly basic. “When the lights are on. The requests come to do assessments for critical facilities and once we have completed those missions and provided the resources or fixes, we typically are released by the COCOM.
“For domestic disaster relief, that decision would be made by USACE or FEMA. Once our mission is complete and no other requirements come in for assessments or hookups, we are released.”
Post-OEF/OIF reductions in the size and deployment of the Army – and budget cuts expected to get more severe in each year of the coming decade – may not affect the 249th to the extent other military units are anticipating, Hudson predicted.
“I don’t think it will really have a big effect on us. Our mission will change some, probably doing more installation missions that have been contracted out [during the war], so our workload actually may increase. And we still will have the mission to respond to national disasters,” he said.
Hudson believes a dedicated prime power battalion is vital to USACE’s military missions and support for disaster relief.
“I’m very proud of these guys – they always manage to do the impossible, conducting their missions in a professional, efficient, and thorough manner. As subject-matter experts in power, they can use their skill sets and lessons learned and, as a dedicated battalion, can better enhance our capability of response as a single point of contact,” he concluded.
“We are the only such unit in the Department of Defense. There are somewhat similar units in the Navy, but smaller and cannot sustain themselves for long deployments because they don’t have as many people or the experience and expertise in a greater variety of missions. Experience is the best teacher and we have a vast amount of that.”
This article originally appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2012-2013 Edition.